Friday, May 01, 2009

Strucutre: Where You Least Expect It

Lots of times when talking about plot or structure, some writers recoil, feeling as if such aspects of craft are merely devices, templates, if you will, for those who are not skilled enough to write a character driven book.

Obviously, I don’t hold the same opinion. But what is also true is that structure can be so integral to the story and so much a part of its very fabric, that the reader is never even aware of it. I thought I’d use a couple of picture books as examples, as people often (mistakenly) assume that something as short as picture books don’t really require structure or plots.

One aspect of structure is the concept of causality—of the events of the story building on themselves, creating a tighter and tighter spiral that the main character must deal with. [A] happens, then the character tries [this], which makes things worse, because

There really is no better illustration of this concept than If You Give A Moose A Muffin by Laura Joffe Numeroff. (Her If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, works well to illustrate this, too.)

In the book, our protagonist gives the moose a muffin in a misguided attempt to get rid of it. But this makes things worse, because then the moose wants jam to go with it. But that makes things worse because they are so tasty he wants more and more. Until they are all gone and it’s time to go to the store, which is even worse because now he needs to borrow a sweater, then needs to mend it, and on and on in a great big rolling snowball of complications. That, my friends, is structure. It is subtle; a charming, integral element of the story, but structure, nonetheless.

A second terrific example, and perhaps my favorite, is Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. That simple, less than 500 word book, encompasses the entire Hero’s Journey. Check it out:

1) The Ordinary World. Max dons his trusty wolf suit and gets into trouble
2) The Call to Adventure.Max is sent to his room, where a forest appears
3) Refusal of the Call. But Max doesn't do anything until it grows even more
4) Mentor. Whoever sent the boat...
5) Crossing the First Threshold. Max sails away in that private boat that shows up
6) Tests, Allies and Enemies. Max sails for over a year
7) Approach to the Inmost Cave. The most dangerous place in the Story World. Max arrives where those scary wild things live
8) The Ordeal. And they do their level best to scare the bejeezus out of him. But he stands up to them, see…and stares them down.
9) Seizing the sword. The hero often receives some reward for surviving. And the Wild things make him their king.—the most wild thing of all.
10) The Road Back. The hero must deal with the consequences of all that he/she has done in order to gain the reward. And now the real rumpus starts!
11) Resurrection. This is the second Ordeal, the final confrontation. Then Max, grown lonely and homesick, stands up to them and makes them stop. Not only that, he punishes them--just as he was punished.
12) Return With the Reward. Then a wiser and calmer Max arrives back in his room and found his supper waiting for him.

I just think it’s so interesting to see just how much things like three act structure or the hero’s journey are a part of our storytelling patterns, even before there was a book that talked about it as a guideline for writers. It’s important to keep in mind that the hero’s journey was recognized rather than invented, recognized after analyzing thousands of years worth of myths and legends and tales. It was merely putting a label to the way man had told stories for generations.

Now I think that it’s absolutely true that some writers don’t have to think about structure or plot in order to have it appear in their work (and I try not to hate them too much for that) but neither is plot a four-letter word. I’m just sayin’.

Edited to add:

In honor of Buy Indie Day, I'm going to my local bookstore this morning and buying a copy of Donald Maass's newest book, The Fire in Fiction, to give away in a drawing this month. All you have to do to be entered is leave a comment. How easy is that? Maass's book, Writing the Breakout Novel is one of my bibles, so I'm very excited he has a second book out.


PJ Hoover said...

In one of my school visit speeches, I use The Odyssey as a Hero's Journey example. This kids seem to really enjoy it! And talk about an old story :)

Dave Johnson said...

Three cheers for Joseph Campbell!

I've never seen that done with The Wild Things before - pretty cool. My go to guide when I get stuck is the original Star Wars Trilogy. Watching Luke defeat the most powerful villian in the universe (in episode 6) simply because he bothered to chase after a runaway droid (in episode 4) is about as causal as it gets.

Robin L said...

Excatly, PJ! And I bet the teachers love it that you can bring ancient Greece into your visit!

Dave, I agree that the original Star Wars Trilogy is a terrific example of causality. In fact, I use that a lot in my workshops. It's also a great Hero's Journey. Hm. I never warmed up to the new Star Wars movies, I wonder if it's because they didn't have this causal relationship or the HJ? Something to think about....

dixie said...

I was amazed to realize that a story plot is the same as for life stories with many small sub-plots spinning around at the same time.


Can I just say that I was one of those who just hated the Hero's Journey idea. But that was in cases where the writing so bluntly followed it that I was formulaicly (okay, not a word) bored. After a lot of work on this (and myself!) I recognize that the hero's journey is how so many tales are told.

And Robin, maybe you never warmed up to Star Wars 1-3 because that kid playing young Anika was so darn hilarious when he tried to scowl...

Robin L said...

True Dixie! Although in fiction, the hard part is to get them all spinning so that they will make sense in the end. Often that isn't a requirement in life. :-)

I think that's a really good point, Thalia. The Journey doesn't always happen in the exact same sequence or the exact same way. I look at it as more of a way to be sure I'm adding enough steps that will realistically cause the character to change.

Sheri said...

I never thought about how structured a child's picture story book is. It just seems so effortless, when in reality there is a lot of thought put into it. Telling a story in few words with pictures really takes a lot of skill.

Dave Johnson said...

The news SW films made several missteps IMO. No chemistry between the characters like in the originals, too much telling/exposition/info dumps, and everything being too polished, thereby losing the 'used universe' look of the originals.

Robin L said...

Picture books are a lot harder than they look, Sheri (this from someone who has a number of failed ones in a box under her bed.)

"Used universe look of the original," I like that Dave! I think there is something very "true" in that statement--and not just for Star Wars, but for all created worlds in fiction.

dixie said...

I facilitated a group of women today on the topic of seeing how how myth and story occur in their own lives. They each brought a synopsis of their favorite childhood fairy tale to share. The example of plot in Where the Wild Things Are helped them to understand more deeply the movements and patterns in their own stories. Thank you. The timing was amazing.

Noël De Vries said...

Thanks so much for the helpful breakdown.

No, writers shouldn't follow the steps word for word, but they're a great prompt when you're stuck on your character's next move!

Robin L said...

So glad you found it helpful, Noel! And an emphatic yes on using it as a prompt!